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A Trip Leader’s Dilemma


When I got back into backpacking a few years ago, I went on a lot of backpacking trips led by other people. I really enjoyed the social experience of a group trip in addition to being outdoors and the exercise. I found some great hiking partners and ended up doing quite a few trips with them.

That changed last year when I hiked the 270 mile Long Trail, 90% of which I did solo. I still went on a few group hikes early in the season, but they were with very experienced hikers.

This year, I decided to mix things up a bit and do a lot more day hiking in between longer, more difficult backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail. Towards the end of winter, I found a group of people who like to do challenging day hikes in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I enjoyed hiking with them and quickly volunteered to become a trip leader because I thought it would be nice to add some backpacking to trips to their calendar.

I did a bunch of research and found some good AT section hikes that coincided with my goals for the year. I figured out all of the shuttling details and planned out the routes in more detail than I would if I were hiking a solo. Then I posted my trips. The day hikes have been well attended and liked. People like the romance of hiking the Appalachian Trail for a day.

Now the dilemma. I found that the people who signed up for my multi-day backpacking trips really didn't have the experience required to go on them and that I am not willing to nurture them. I think it comes down to that. I made the mistake of impulsively posting some advanced trips and now I going through the difficult process of explaining to people why they aren't qualified to come.

What's worse is that they are serious, experienced day hikers with a lot of peak-bagging experience. While there is certainly some overlap between peak-bagging and backpacking, hiking 10 miles and 3,000 ft of elevation in one day is very different from doing it day after day for 3 or 4 days in the pouring rain in the middle of nowhere.

But my discomfort is not about backpacker qualifications. I think it goes much deeper than that. The truth is that finishing a backpacking route is really important to me, my vacation time is very precious, and although I'm normally very generous, I'm just not willing to fail or risk failure. There, I said it.

I like going on long, difficult hikes that require a lot of focus and sheer will to complete. On top of that, being a section hiker means that I have a limited time window to complete the required miles to get back to my car, and that there are an unavoidable minimum number of miles that have to be completed each day, despite weather conditions. The fact is, that I really push my envelope on backpacking trips.

I've discussed this with a few friends and they have been very understanding. They just think I need to find more people to backpack with who are on my level and have the same expectations. The truth is that I know lots of people like this, but they live too far away or they're pursuing other backpacking projects this year and are unavailable.

So, I've decided to cancel my hardest group trip, a 9 day/130 miler, and just do it solo. I will continue to lead AT day hikes with this group and the occassional overnight backpacking trip, but in the future, those trips will not overlap with any backpacking projects I'm working on. I hope that will make it possible for me to be more nurturing and less stressed out about making my miles and achieving my own goals.

Have you ever experienced this kind of inner conflict between going solo and leading a group on a challenging backpacking trip?


  1. All the time. But I learned very early on to minimize the group to no more than 3. Most of my trips have been with one friend. Recently I started adding a new friend into the mix after testing her endurance out on shorter but difficult trips. The more the number of people, the more chances of something risky happening. I also like the smaller group because I want to be remote, i.e. be around less people. But that's just me :)

    It takes a lot to plan a trip: permits, itinerary, food, and making sure people pack enough and not too much. I don't think non-planners really appreciate how much work goes into it. I was in New England for 10 years and didn't know anyone there keen on these kinds of trips, so I always went west — Sierras, Cascades, Olympics, Vancouver Island. I finally just moved to Calif to make the logistics easier. Good luck!

    (P.S. Just found your blog and really liking it)

  2. I was keeping my group size down to 4 from the get-go. Like you I don't like crowd management and I like your idea of requiring that people prove themselves easier trips with me. Thanks for the comments and for visiting.

  3. I've had similar experiences and quit posting longer trips as well. Generally it's mostly me andmy girlfriend on them now. The one difference I've had is after some harder trips people mostly stopped signing up for my trips at all, even the easier ones.

  4. Recently I've had that same dilemma. I think it is particularly hard when the people who might be joining you are friends. I was planning a 5 day hike in June (thanks for previous posts on black fly protection!) with a buddy of mine. I had no concern over covering the distance (8-10 miles per day though somewhat challenging terrain). I was really worried he wouldn't be able to keep up and we'd have to cut the trip short, particularly because his gear would be significantly heavier than mine.

    After really agonizing over what to do about it and knowing I would be really disappointed if we didn't finish the trail, I told him if he wasn't ready I would go solo but left it up to him to decide if he wanted to attempt the trip anyway. Honestly, I think he was relieved to be let off the hook! I've realized that my goals for backpacking (covering a certain distance, pushing my limits, reducing gear weight) are not the same as most of my camping friends' and it is really important to acknowledge what you want to get out of a particular trip or risk being disappointed. I'm much happier now that I'm planning for just myself, and have decided on a longer trip with a much longer distance.

    Though I'm sure we all get plenty of raised eyebrows at what we call "vacations," thanks for the affirmation that I'm not the only one that feels this way about my hiking trips!

  5. You hit the nail on the head. Thanks for sharing your experience with me. It really helps.

  6. As someone on the other side of the equation (that is to say, the sort of newbie who might sign up for a hike), I can definitely tell you that the only thing worse than going on a hike I wasn't qualified for would be to have a trip leader resenting me for it the whole way. I say definitely just lead who you want to lead and don't feel bad about it.

  7. I'm in the same boat and I can totally relate. For 20 years I arranged my trips based on family or friends and their interests and capabilities. In the last couple years I've learned to backpack alone because I want to go at my pace and take care of myself only, nobody else. I have a couple friends who can take care of themselves, and keep up, and make good travelling partners, but I've gotten to where I don't want to invite less experienced more needy people.

    I try to balance this, though, with remembering that my 10-years-older brother took me backpacking when I was just a kid (certainly slow and inexperienced). He turned me on to this wonderful adventurous hobby, and I'm very grateful to him for that.

  8. I think it happens as we change – and it isn't a bad thing. I love long mile days, there is a freedom in it. But…most don't who I know. So it has been whittled down to 2 or 3 guys I know who are up to it. None of my lady friends desire it.

    I took a friend this past summer on a trip and it went bad due to it just being, well, too hard for her. She wanted to be able to do it – but she didn't realize that to do long mile….the joy is in finishing.

    I realized then that my desire to do long days is a thing I cannot get others to understand. And that is OK!

    It isn't being greedy either, it is reality. You only have so much time and doing it your way will make you happier!

  9. Wise words – thank you all.

  10. I only asked two people if they would join me on my '07 thru-hike of the PNT. The reason I only asked two people is because I only knew two people at the time who would tolerate the big miles and big vertical necessary. Neither of them accepted so I went solo.

  11. I think anyone who has lead a hike has gone through this.

    There are hikes with a goal and then there are hikes when you are there to smell the roses. the difference between a private (pending review) or open call hike.

    I've heard it. "I think I need to turn back" And I'm thinking to myself…Your kidding! I don't want you to hike alone, but I came here to hike and I drove 2 hours to get here"

    If you had your heart set on this, If hiking solo is the only way to insure that you will get it done, then that's the way to do it.

    I am commonly one of the slower hikers in my group, and I know my limits. That means hike with hikers who are the same rating as myself and don't sign up for what I can't do. If I can't meet the turn around time set by the leader, my goal must be adjusted,not theirs. The more you hike with the group the more you learn about who you can be paired with. If a hiker does not have a profile listed or I have doubts, I have every right to cancel their reservation to hike with me on MY hike.

    A thru hike takes even more commitment and you must be confident that you can finish- there is a point of no return if the car is at the end of the hike or the trail you just climbed is more of a risk descending. So even the carpool members should be matched up. This cuts down on a lot of stress.

    I have a challenge(for me)hike coming up. I know that many of the hikers will be able to finish at book time or better. I have a choice to start earlier, finish behind them in my group or cancel. I have resolved that since this is what I had my heart set on doing, I'll hike it my way with or without company.

  12. I suspect I'm not quite in your league, but have had similar experiences. If the planned trip is hard, then you need to only accept people on that trip who have been on shorter trips with you and agree about aims and goals. I would either adapt my goals for the group (hard unless there is a good reason – like teaching technique to neophytes) or select the group for my goals (even harder). My own nasty experience was being the leader on a 50 mile or so trip which wasn't very hard, and for me yet another walk in the woods, but was quite a shock for the others. It really upset them (almost to physical fighting) that I was having a relatively easy time and knew what to expect and they weren't.

  13. I hear you loud & clear, and applaud your decision. I think it was the right one for both you and, ultimately, those who would have been part of the group.
    Guiding a group is rewarding in many ways, but it's an unavoidable fact of life that you will only go as fast and as far as the slowest and weakest member.
    Good luck on the 9-dayer. Will you be carrying all your own food? If so, I'd love to know what you take (I got a lot of great ideas from your menus last year).

  14. Catching up here:

    Tim – I hear you. I think the key is to take "smell the roses" trips when I am the leader, so we can take our time and I can pass on the lore that other leaders taught me. I still think that's important. However, even when I'm chomping at the bit inside, I'm pretty good at not letting it show through and putting others on the defensive. It's my baggage, not theirs.

    Diane – thanks for your support. I really appreciate it.

    Rob – Like the idea of requiring previous "screening" hikes. Makes a lot of sense.

    Chris – Always a pleasure to hear from you. I will be doing the 9 day trip without a resupply. The menu will require a lot of creativity, but I expect that I'll lose some weight too. I'll post the menu. I'm hoping to keep to 1.5 lbs/day so it will contain calorically dense stuff like nutella, perhaps some home-made gu, hard cheese, chocolate, etc.

  15. You were so very wise to figure this out while still at home and not on the trail.

    In the future, you may find that slow paced backpacks without set goals for distance appeal to you. At that point, perhaps you will lead hikes where you are mentoring others.

    HYOH !

  16. I agree with the others! All trip planners face this eventually. Personally I tend to only lead trips for small groups of teens where I can control packing and prework. I also keep them to 3 nights Max unless I gel with a specific group. The other catch is that these trips are more for the teens and giving back than for me and I am ok with that. When I do take out adults I have learned to do prep hikes and packing demos all in a way that isn't condesending and really allows the adult to know what they ate in for. Our big trips are just me and Sherpa and sometimes my best friend T'Dub…. I feel much less resentful if something doesn't go as planned with this group!! My only exception is my yearly trip with my mom :) and since she carried things for me when I was young I am happy to do that for her and slow down the pace!!!

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